Science Fiction

Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.

But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.

Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.

I've just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.

The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.

We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:

As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It's interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don't see a single one. That's strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you'd think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it's all Joe's Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what's the story there? I asked. What's the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.

McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka's The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.

McCarthy's greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it's supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don't even accurately describe his close friend who just died.

In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn't even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.

Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He's worried about us all, and about what we've done, and what we're about to do next:

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she'd said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least.


Why Tom McCarthy is emerging as the best postmodern novelist on the scene today.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015 07:47 am
Satin Island, a novel by Tom McCarthy
Levi Asher

Update, March 13 2015: Daevid Allen has died, according to a message from his son.

Daevid Allen, a brilliant songwriter and archetypal hippie prog-rocker who co-founded Soft Machine in 1966 before reaching his peak as the mad visionary genius of Gong, has announced that he is dying of cancer and has six months to live.

I am not interested in endless surgical operations and in fact it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight.

I am a great believer in "The Will of the Way Things Are" and I also believe that the time has come to stop resisting and denying and to surrender to the way it is.

I can only hope that during this journey, I have somehow contributed to the happiness in the lives of a few other fellow humans.

Many people have never heard of Daevid Allen, who wears a bright blue shirt and gazes skyward in the photo above. But those in-the-know prog fans who do know the music of Gong tend to be rapturous at the mention of his name. It was Daevid Allen who inspired the British band Soft Machine to name themselves after a William S. Burroughs novel, after which he drifted to Paris and teamed up with his muse and lover Gilli Smyth to create the musical collective known variously over the years as Gong or Planet Gong, or New York Gong (the punk-flavored variation that flared up in the late 1970s) or Mother Gong (the branch Gilli Smyth maintained on her own).

The lack of a hard core behind the band's fluid identity expresses not only the band's existential philosophy but also its musical approach, which was relentlessly experimental and international but always sweet, funny, approachable and optimistic.

Gong existed on a dynamic musical fault line: the lyrics were goofy and the cosmic imagery delightfully faux-naif, but the music was solid kick-ass jazz rock, tinged with theatrical flourishes reflecting influences from Ornette Coleman to Brecht and Weill to Edith Piaf. The remarkable sonic stew reached its peak in three great mid-1970s concept albums known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy. The very best of these three albums, in my opinion, is the delicious Angel's Egg, a little-known masterpiece that occupies a sonic ground somewhere between Zappa/Beefheart's Bongo Fury, Pink Floyd's Ummugumma and Preservation by the Kinks. A great video of the song "I Never Glid Before" from this album captures both the innocent sparkle and dramatic musical sophistication of Gong.

I never fully understood the fantasy/sci-fi plotline of the Radio Gnome rock opera, which deals with pointy-headed space aliens, Octave Doctors, a hero named Zero, a prostitute with a cat (memorably voiced by the fearless Gilli Symth) and a bunch of creatures known as Pothead Pixies, whose name is abbreviated as PHP on the comic illustrations that graced the covers of their 1970s albums. (I never found proof of this, but I always guessed that Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the programming language PHP, must have been a Gong fan.)

I might never have heard of Daevid Allen or Gong, just as many people who think they know a lot about 1970s classic rock have barely any idea that this long-running creative collective exists. I only know about Gong because I long ago happened to briefly befriend a small community of obsessive young prog-rock fiends in a small Hudson Valley New York town who lived in a musical bubble and introduced me to the deep discography of serious experimental music from Brian Eno to early Genesis to Todd Rundgren to Gong, which made the biggest impression on me of all of these names. (I fell out of touch with this crazy group of friends, but later discovered that one of the ringleaders had morphed into the prog-rocker Phideaux Xavier, whose unique ongoing work continues to remind me of the genius of Daevid Allen.)

Indeed, Gong will probably live on through its influence on other artists, and if Daevid Allen dies in approximately six months as he expects to do, there will only be a gentle ripple of recognition around the world. The influence will be felt in large but subtle vibrations, like those of the ancient Asian instrument the band is named after.

Look up in the air
The Octave Doctor's there!
And when he strokes his gong
Your middle eye comes on

In a moving interview at Blues.Gr just a year ago, Daevid Allen hearkened back to his early Beat inspiration to provide his own perspective on it all.

William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".

Daevid Allen, your friends around the world thank you for brightening our lives. We pray that your passage will be peaceful.


Daevid Allen, the brilliant jazz-rock mastermind of Soft Machine, Gong, New York Gong and Planet Gong, releases a public statement about his fatal cancer.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015 09:51 am
A circle of Gong, featuring Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth and Didier Malherbe
Levi Asher

Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.

The Touch was about what happens when radioactivity intrudes upon the life on an ordinary American family. An industrial engineer is briefly exposed to some dangerous dust during a laboratory maneuver. This soon changes everything in his life, as gossip about his accident causes even his best friends to fear his touch of death, so that he and his pregnant wife are suddenly ostracized. We see how an industrial accident ends up turning into an even worse human accident, a collapse of civility, a descent into blind prejudice.

This is a bleak book, but also thrilling in its creepy sense of a systematic mindless menace invading our lives. I distinctly remember being gripped by a couple of vivid scenes: the stunned engineer rushing into a shower to wash off the dangerous substance, and later the frustrated and ruined man taking out his anger on a lump of clay in a studio. (The book's toxic hero, if I remember correctly, worked as an automobile model sculptor).

The Touch was a bleak book, and, well, Flowers for Algernon was a bleak book too. Especially that gut-punch ending, and the way the narrator and hero Charly's mental condition was reflected in the language he used in these final pages.

It's a funny thing: I always hated this book's cover. I thought the book had a lousy title too. Flowers for the mouse? How about some damn flowers for Charly? He suffered a lot worse than the mouse.

Daniel Keyes, fortunately, appears to have lived a happy life, though he never repeated his single great success, which was also turned into a mediocre movie called Charly (an even worse title!) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom. Before he was a novelist, Daniel Keyes worked in the comics business in New York City, where the germ of the idea that became Flowers for Algernon was first pitched as a possible comic book plot.

Daniel Keyes lived in Brooklyn, making it a good bet that many young writers must have run into him often at corner delis and on Prospect Park walkways without knowing that he was the author who wrote the novel they loved in junior high, like I did too.


Daniel Keyes, author of "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Touch", has died at the age of 86.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm
The Touch by Daniel Keyes
Levi Asher

The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.

First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.

The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.

“If some of us unconsciously chose places like Garden Rest, perhaps others, darkly obsessed, chose an underworld where they might act out the suffering they felt they deserved”, muses Nick Fogg in Doyle After Death. In terms of how negative karma might affect people who exist on alternate planes of reality, this book reminds me of the writings of Charles Williams, whose work was arguably the darkest and weirdest of all the Inklings, that Oxford literary group that also included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There is an aspect of what Professor Thomas Howard called “purgatorial” when describing William’s themes.

But there is a solid basis for science in the Doyle/Shirley universe. Doyle theorizes that the spirit plane is invisible because it vibrates at a level undetectable to the mortal eye, like fan blades spinning so fast we can’t see them. In an Author’s Note, Shirley’s adds, “Any conceivable afterlife would have consistent physics and biological principles, all its own.”
Even if you don’t catch every reference to Conan Doyle’s personal life, this is a fun book to read. I hope there will be a sequel, and perhaps Mr. Doyle will yet be reunited with his one true love.

John Shirley is an award-winning writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir fiction. He has written novels, short stories, TV scripts, and screenplays. His novels include the seminal cyberpunk trilogy known collectively as A Song Called Youth (Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona), Wetbones, and Everything is Broken. He wrote the screenplay for The Crow. As a musician, Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult and others. I asked him about all of this and more in a recent interview.

Bill Ectric: I was glad to see some sleuthing in Doyle After Death.

John Shirley: Of course Doyle does sleuthing in this tale, that's the whole point! And he did some in real life. He investigated a real life crime, which I mention in the novel. But he doesn’t do it alone. He has a kind of "Dr. Watson" in the improbable person of a dead detective from Las Vegas, one Nicholas Fogg.

Remember that this all happens in an afterlife world, called the afterworld in the novel, and it's operating purely on the rules and physical laws of the afterlife. There are some flashback scenes in Las Vegas, relevant to character development, but 90% of the novel happens in the afterlife world. The tale does not follow ghost sleuthing in our world. That's been done.

Bill: Would Houdini, with his cynicism about the paranormal, make it into the afterlife?

John: Everyone makes it in to the afterlife, but some make it as a mere spark, and others are more substantial. Houdini is not in my story. Perhaps he'll be in a sequel if there is one. Houdini was a substantial human being, a person of will and presence, and I would expect that he would arrive more or less intact in an afterlife.

Bill: Is there a particular film, film series, or television show based on any of Doyle’s work (Holmes, Lost World, etc.) that stands out as your favorite?

John: Yes, I like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes stories done by Granada TV. They were the most authentic adaptations, and he seemed the most like the Holmes of the stories. Brett was a fine actor, and he made Holmes come alive. I also like the Sherlock series--a kind of modern Holmes--with Benedict Cumberbatch. They're clever, not that much like Doyle, but they're good and Cumberbatch is very good.

Bill: This question is off the subject, but how did you come to write lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult?

John: I wrote a novel called Transmaniacon, to some extent inspired by the song of the same name by the Blue Oyster Cult. And by the tone of that first BOC album. The Blue Oyster Cult were aware of it. I had mutual friends who knew they were looking for a lyricist. The friends hooked me up with Donald Roeser [Buck Dharma] long distance. He liked a number of my lyrics and recorded them. Of course, I sent them many more that went unrecorded.

Bill: How do you write such great gun battle sequences? I'm thinking especially of Eclipse (the first book of the Song Called Youth trilogy) and Everything is Broken.

John: I read about these things. I research. I also have a vivid imagination. I have fired guns, of course, but mostly I just try very hard to envision it and then to evoke it in the fewest, crispest, most evocative words possible.

Bill: In your novel Wetbones, I really enjoy the way you combine Hollywood historical fiction with references to real movie stars of "old Hollywood." It would seem you are taking it to another level in Doyle After Death. Would you classify this as historical fiction?

John: Wetbones drew on Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon a bit, and on biographies of early movie stars, but most of the novel is pure fiction. (Although there is a producer in it who is somewhat based on a really famous producer, whom I will not name) ...

Bill: Are you are a fan of biography and history?

John: Yes, I read more biographical and historical material at this time in my life than novels. I am reading a biography of Lawrence of Arabia at present. I'm a fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, which were certainly informed by his reading into history--and Aubrey was based on a certain captain in the Royal Navy. The Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell use Wellington as a major character. Doyle After Death includes a good deal of material about Arthur Conan Doyle gleaned from biographies and from his letters and essays. His first wife is a character in the novel, too, and that's based on biographical reading.

But Doyle was a pretty colorful guy and is almost a fictional character now anyway. I think I evoke him respectfully and with reasonable authenticity, but since it's about his adventures as a kind of detective in the afterlife, most the tale is fantasy. I have no problem with setting historical fiction against a fantasy backdrop.

Oh, and Susannah Clarke, whom I admire, created a kind of alternate world version of historical characters to work with her fictional characters in her admirable novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Bill: Why do you think historical fiction is so popular?

John: I look to Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, and to biographies, to teach me about the large and small patterns of history; to give me a feel for real people's lives. Then I might use that "feel" in fiction. And I think people like that feeling of authenticity. Also with respect to historical characters, it's almost as if they're already characters in a novel, in the narratives we make about them in our minds.

Bill: Do you think the literary device of historical fiction can go too far? That perhaps young people might be confused over what really happened and what didn’t? Or did Parson Weems already cross that line with his George Washington cherry tree story?

John: People have been crossing that line since the line was imagined to exist. Gore Vidal wrote a novel about Lincoln and certainly not everything in it was real. Many Civil War tales used Grant and Lee as characters. People make up stories about Alexander the Great and Elizabeth I. As for people becoming confused -- they have an obligation to sort out real history from alternate histories or fantasies using historical persons. It's called getting an education.

I don't know if it can be taken too far with other people--with my own writing it can. I try to use some of real life in an effort like Doyle After Death but not so much it becomes enslaved to the limitations of history. I will just say that I feel that most fans of Arthur Conan Doyle (and, in fact, of Sherlock Holmes) will like the treatment I give Doyle in Doyle After Death.

Bill: Do you think Arthur Conan Doyle was responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax?

John: No, Doyle wasn't responsible for the Piltdown Man Hoax. It's well established that the responsible man was Charles Dawson.

* * * * *

Doyle After Death by John Shirley is an e-book that sells for $2.99. Other John Shirley books include BioShock: Rapture, Gurdjieff and Kizuna: Fiction for Japan (a charity anthology). Photograph of John Shirley by Michael Robles. Photo of wave by Barry Shrum.


Bill Ectric interviews John Shirley, whose writings include Arthur Conan Doyle historical novels, Bioshock prequels, the screenplay for 'The Crow' and songs for Blue Oyster Cult.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013 12:02 pm
John Shirley collage by Bill Ectric
Bill Ectric

I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.

Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.

I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.

This movie follows the structure of the book very closely, and like the book is awesomely good. You can tell how good the movie is by the seriousness of the actors, primarily Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger as James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as John Buford and Stephen Lang as George Pickett. (You know a work of cinema is great when it inspires its own cast to pinnacles of method acting -- The Godfather had this quality, and so did The Sopranos, and Topsy-Turvy by Mike Leigh). Gettysburg aims for a greater degree of historical realism than most war fictions (as did Michael Shaara's novel), and is beautifully photographed on the actual battlefield in the southern central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, which sits tucked under the northernmost curve of the Blue Ridge mountains.

I'll be visiting this town on a big and hopefully raucous family vacation all next week. This week is a big deal in Gettysburg: the battle took place on July 1, 2 and 3 in 1863, so the 150th anniversary of the massive battle will take place next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I'll be posting dispatches from the field ... assuming a messenger can get through.

Both the movie and the book explore the psychological turbulence that drove the various commanders during the amazing three-day battle of Gettysburg, which claimed fifty-one thousand casualties. Four stories interweave. First, we have flinty Union Cavalry officer John Buford noticing and thoughtfully occupying the hills northwest and southeast of the town of Gettysburg before the battle begins, realizing that these hills are the best high ground any army could hope for, and determining to grab it. Buford is forced to lead a delaying action against the entire Confederate Army on the northwest hills on the morning of July 1 as the battle begins.

Next, we have Confederate General James Longstreet, Lee's most trusted subordinate since the death of Stonewall Jackson. Longstreet is cursed with pessimistic realism; as all the other generals in the Rebel army obsequiously predict victory at every turn, and even the wise Robert E. Lee seems to increasingly lose himself in the golden glow of optimism, Longstreet senses that the Confederate offense at Gettysburg is guaranteed to be a disaster, because the Union is too well dug in and is fighting at peak form. He tries to persuade Lee to defer the risk of a frontal assault and adopt a defensive strategy on July 2, and again on July 3, when his prediction of utter disaster comes true.

The book also presents the heroic college professor from Maine, Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who is told to hold his line at all costs and manages to do so, leading a spontaneous bayonet charge at Little Round Top on July 2 after his regiment runs out of ammunition. I've always suspected, from the richness of Michael Shaara's depiction of this bookish soldier, that the novelist must have seen himself in Joshua Chamberlain. The fourth story is the doomed past friendship of Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead and Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Once best friends, now facing each other on the climactic battlefield, the two old soldiers think of each other constantly, and Armistead reaches the stone wall that is the destination of dreadful Pickett's Charge and just misses the chance to see his great frenemy again before he dies at the wall.

The Killer Angels is as straight-up thrilling as all of the best historical fiction, but it's also a literary work with classical and spiritual overtones. When James Longstreet philosophizes about the necessity of a defensive stance in warfare, he echoes the great Russian general Mikhail Kutozov in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. When Armistead races across a battlefield, fretting over the possibility that he might kill his old best friend Hancock, we can think of Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Since reading The Killer Angels once and seeing Gettysburg about eight times (who's counting?), I've also read numerous other books about this battle, and about the other battles between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. The institution of human slavery was at stake; so was the feasibility of the United States of America itself. I'm still not sure exactly what was won and what was lost in the American Civil War, and whether or not better decisions could have been made. Maybe I'll find some answers as I live-blog the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg all week next week.


"The Killer Angels" by Michael Schaara and "Gettysburg", the movie made from the book, made me a civil war geek. I'm still not sure how to square this with the fact that I'm a pacifist.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013 08:25 pm
1970s paperback of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Levi Asher

Here's something unusual: a 1955 appearance by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury on Groucho Marx's famous TV game show "You Bet Your Life".

Stocky and hearty, the 35-year-old author is at this time already a successful writer, but not yet a famous one. He cites his accomplishments to Groucho: stories in the New Yorker, the screenplay to the recent film version of Moby Dick, a novel called Fahrenheit 451. Groucho Marx fails to come up with a great moment of improvisational banter with Ray Bradbury, settling for a weak bit about "rider" vs "writer". Clearly, the show couldn't be brilliant every night.

Ray Bradbury loses, ironically, on a literary question. Asked about an Olivia De Havilland movie in which she is disappointed by a shady suitor, Bradbury fails to name The Heiress but, as soon as he hears the title, mutters "Henry James", realizing that this is the movie based on the James novel Washington Square. Points to Ray for knowing the reference, though he comes up with it too late.


Young science-fiction author Ray Bradbury banters with Groucho Marx and momentarily forgets his Henry James in a 1955 clip from the television game show "You Bet Your Life".

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Monday, October 22, 2012 08:57 pm
Ray Bradbury appears on a television game show in 1955
Levi Asher

Illustrated Man

1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.

And while I've gotcha here:

2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.

3. Perceptive words (in video format) by Bill Ectric on the work of Iranian author Ali Mirdrekvandi.

5. Andrew Zawacki on the meaning of graffiti in Paris.

6. Patti Smith and Neil Young compare notes (get it?) on memoir writing at BookExpo in New York City.

7. Electric Literature presents: North Of, a short story by Marie-Helene Bertino about bringing Bob Dylan home for family dinner.

view /Ray
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 09:03 pm
Levi Asher

Taking advantage of a Hollywood vacation my wife won at her office Christmas party this past December, I decided to visit a few West Coast indie bookstores with copies of my novel, Tamper. This was our first time in California and we loved everything about it. In between sightseeing and dining, I dropped in on four bookstores I had chosen from a list provided by L.A. resident Wanda Shapiro, author of Sometimes That Happens With Chicken, whom I recently befriended on Facebook.

First, I have to say, the printed book is far from dead. On the flight from Jacksonville, Florida and throughout our stay in the Los Angeles area, I lost count of the number of people I saw reading books (not ebooks) at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel lobby, in coffee shops, and on the beach. Once, on my flight back to Jacksonville, I saw no less than three people in a row, all reading books at the same time. I managed to sneak a snapshot of them with my iPhone before the flight attendant reminded me to shut the gadget down while we were in the air.

My strategy was to give free copies of Tamper to each store I visited. If the bookstores sold those, I wanted none of the proceeds, but maybe they would consider ordering more.

“Think of it as a thick business card,” I said more than once. This was not my idea. I read it on a blog somewhere. I wish I could remember which blog it was, but the article suggested that in addition to sending books to reviewers, a good strategy might be to give books to people you meet socially, during travel, etc. The idea was that people would be duly impressed and likely to tell someone else. My reaction at the time was less than enthusiastic, but I’ve come to realize that it costs money to sell books, one way or the other. I’ve paid for blogads and print ads, I’ve paid postage to mail query letters and promotional material, and I’ve made large portions of my book available for free on the Internet (a fairly recent popular theory being that even people who can get books for free will somehow end up buying one), so hey, why not just give away a whole bunch of books?

My first foray was to a narrow little shop called Portrait of a Bookstore, in Studio City, described in one internet review as an “adorable indie bookstore nestled inside the quaint (yet hip) Aroma Cafe.” I should add that Portrait of a Bookstore does not use the word “indie” on their website. What they say on their website is, “Our selection makes for the kind of store you can rely on to carry that book that was just mentioned on NPR or in the New Times, but also the very best books you’ve never heard of . . . our book buyer, Lucia Silva, recommends books seasonally on NPR’s Morning Edition with Susan Stamberg.” What they don’t mention is that the book has to be available on Ingram’s catalog or they can’t purchase it.

Ingram is the same catalog Barnes & Noble buys from, and if you’re not on Ingram, you won’t be at Barnes & Noble or Portrait of a Bookstore. Upside: The lady I spoke to was pleasant and gracious. She asked me if my book was available from Ingram and I said I wasn’t sure. She was nice enough to look it up for me on her computer. It turns out that my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, are both on Ingram, because I published them through iUniverse, but my novel Tamper is not, apparently because it’s published through CreateSpace, which is affiliated with It breaks down like this: iUniverse costs more but they have Ingram; CreateSpace costs much less and they have and Kindle. For the best of both worlds, I just sent an email to CreateSpace earlier today, asking if there is any way to get Tamper listed in Ingram’s catalog. So I got some valuable information from the pleasant lady whose name I unfortunately neglected to write down. It couldn’t have been Lucia Silva because she told me, “Our buyer isn’t here right now.” As a matter of fact, at all four bookstores I went to, the first thing they said was, “Our buyer isn’t here right now.” No buyers were ever there right then. But that’s okay, I told them, for I am giving freely with no strings attached. She did accept one copy of Tamper and a couple of my business cards.

Next stop: Metropolis Books, 440 Main Street, downtown Los Angeles. The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was trying to give her a dead possum. “We don’t purchase books on commission,” she said. I explained it was a free copy and all I was asking was that they display it and see if it sells. I had my one and two-line spiels down pretty well (you have to summarize books in one or two lines or the listener will go into a coma). Between my first and second line, she said, “Well, you see, our store is in the process of being sold, so we can’t accept any more products.” I remained upbeat and friendly, focusing gently on the angle that she had nothing to lose by displaying the book, and you never know, someone might buy it, and she allowed me to place one copy on the counter in front of her and promised not to trash it as soon as I walked out the door.

The last two stores were, by far, the most receptive and understanding. They were Skylight Books, near the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, and Small World Books on the rockin’ free-wheelin’ & funky boardwalk at Venice Beach, with its sidewalk vendors and street performers.

Even though their buyers weren’t there right then, the people who worked in these two stores (again, I regret not getting names) seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about the book and expressed no reservations about dealing with an unknown fly-by-night like myself. The young man at Skylight said he was reluctant to accept a free book because, he said, “I know how much books cost” and he didn’t want to deplete my inventory. I pulled the “think of it as a thick business card” line. Works every time.

The folks at Small, who I will call Earth Mother and The Coolly Studious Guy, put me at such ease that I let my hair down a bit and expressed lamentations over the plight of indie booksellers everywhere. Unprofessional, I know. I felt like I had returned to a familiar continuum in time and space, where people were real. The Earth Mother assured me that Small World Books is not tied to a particular catalog and the Coolly Studious Guy accepted two copies of Tamper, sensing that it would appease my torment.

Upon arriving back in muggy-hot, mosquito-infested, and recently smoke-from-forest-fire-filled Jacksonville, Florida, I received an awesome email from Skylight Books. They wanted to buy two copies of Tamper for their store! Whoo-Hoo! The email even contained information as to what type of invoice they needed to receive with the order, which was quite helpful.

This wasn't my first sale to a bookstore, but it's the first time a bookstore outside of Florida has placed an order for Tamper. I might just print that email and frame it.


The article suggested that in addition to sending books to reviewers, a good strategy might be to give books to people you meet socially, during travel, etc. The idea was that people would be duly impressed and likely to tell someone else. My reaction at the time was less than enthusiastic ...

view /EctricGoesToHollywood
Thursday, June 23, 2011 08:32 am
Bookstore displays
Bill Ectric

(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?

Louie Louie
Oh no, me gotta go.
Louie Louie
Oh baby, me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me
Me catch the ship across the sea
I sailed the ship all alone,
I never think how I'll make it home

Had the evolution of rock lyrics remained so banal and elementary we’d all be listening to the Carpenters today. “Why do birds suddenly appear / Everytime you get near?” I don’t know. Maybe your hair smells like peanut butter. Fortunately for us, time heals bad taste and turns it into pop culture. Iconic rock lyricists like Jim Morrison, Robert Hunter, David Byrne began to give this minor art form’s place in history -- infused with more Americana than a tribute to Robert Frost (who couldn’t play a lick on a Strat).

Let's talk about Neil Peart. Big-time woo-hoo rock and roll Wonder? King Bad Ass, world class percussionist? Lyricist extraordinaire? Neil Peart of Rush is all of this and much more. If you were bottle fed on the milk of progressive rock, like yours truly, you may already be among the Illuminati. On the other hand, if you:

A. Have spent your life in a small dark cave on the shores of the Mediterranean with seaweed jammed into your ears.

B. Love to listen to the sedately dulcet tones of John Tesh while your Angora snores melodically in the backround

C. Think Rush is something you feel after snorting an old quaalude you found under a couch where you remembered you stashed it twenty seven years ago.

... then you probably have NO idea what I am talking about. But that’s okay; I’m familiar with the glazed looks on some of your faces when I try to articulate an idea. I’m married. Allow me to break it all down for you.

Neil Peart, a Canadian export more valuable than Canadian bacon or TimBit’s, is by consensus a supreme progressive jazz/rock drummer. But he is also, unbeknownst to many rock and roll aficionados, one of the most successful wordsmiths in the history of the genre. Peart began writing lyrics while drumming for an Ontario band named Hush, but the others in the band were inexplicably unimpressed with his efforts. Dismayed by this lack of recognition, he passed the Rush audition for drummer in 1974, and by 1975 he had replaced singer Geddy Lee as main lyricist for the band. His first major lyrical contributions to the band’s second album Fly By Night propelled the band to instant commercial success.

The contents of Neil Peart’s subconscious -- poured out in the form of rock verses that dominate numerous award winning albums over the past three and a half decades -- reveal a man of great depth and creativity. The broad range of topical material employed by Peart explore a wide variety of political, social and mythological themes, many of which are evocative in their imagery. Ignoring his critics, who have accused him of being too romantic, too bombastic, too political, and often too cynical, Peart continues to paint deeply symbolic, thematic imagery with the panache of the noble bards of old.

Neil Peart’s most notable lyrical contributions to Fly by Night include a song called “Anthem”, a tribute to individualism, as well as “By-Tor and the Snowdog”:

The Tobes of Hades, lit by flickering torchlight
The netherworld is gathered in the glare
Prince By-Tor takes the cavern to the north light
The sign of Eth is rising in the air.
By-Tor, knight of darkness,
Centurion of evil, devil's prince.

Across the River Styx, out of the lamplight
His nemesis is waiting at the gate
The Snow Dog, ermine glowing in the damp night
Coal-black eyes shimmering with hate.
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Square for battle, let the fray begin

Success was brief. Critics panned the second album Caress of Steel as too sentimental for rock: Here is “Lakeside Park”, in which Peart describes the idyllic days of his youth:

Days of barefoot freedom
Racing with the waves
Nights of starlit secrets
Crackling driftwood flames
Drinking by the lighthouse
Smoking on the pier
Still we saw the magic
Fading every year

Everyone would gather
On the twenty fourth of May
Sitting in the sand
To watch the fireworks display
Dancing fires on the beach
Singing songs together
Though it's just a memory
Some memories last forever

From “A Farewell to Kings:”

"To seek the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
To break my fast on honey dew
And drink the milk of Paradise..."

I had heard the whispered tales
Of immortality
The deepest mystery
From an ancient book. I took a clue
I scaled the frozen mountain tops
Of eastern lands unknown
Time and Man alone
Searching for the lost - Xanadu

And finally, from the album Hemispheres:

When our weary world was young
The struggle of the Ancients first began
The Gods of Love and Reason
Sought alone to rule the fate of Man
They battled through the ages
But still neither force would yield
The people were divided
Every soul a battlefield...

The songs worked together thematically as a post-apocalypse trilogy, and the band’s stage shows revolved around these stories. With these offerings, from a band whose discography includes more than thirty albums, we see Neil Peart’s potential gaining traction over the course of forty productive years (during which he also found the time to write a few books).

In closing, since I do believe deep in my rock and roll heart that few things in this world are funnier than misunderstood lyrics, here are a couple of my own misheard Neil Peart lyrics. First, from “Limelight”:

Living in the Fish Islands
[more accurately, "a fisheye lens", but I like my version better]
Caught in the camera eye.
I have no heart to lie,
I can't pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend.

From “Red Barchetta” (a Barchetta is an Italian sports car):

My uncle has a country place
That no one knows about.
He says it used to be a farm,
before he mowed the lawn [actually "the Motor Law" -- again, I like mine better]

Okay, so they are not gut busters. Nor are they as existentially daunting as the following uplifting lyrics, which I leave you to peruse/For some meaning you may use. From “Ceiling Unlimited”:

It's not the heat
It's the inhumanity
Plugged into the sweat of a summer street
Machine gun images pass
Like malice through the looking glass

The slackjaw gaze
Of true profanity
Feels more like surrender than defeat
If culture is the curse of the thinking class
If culture is the curse of the thinking class

The vacant laugh
Of true insanity
Dressed up in the mask of Tragedy
Programmed for the guts and glands
Of idle minds and idle hands

I rest my case
Or at least my vanity
Dressed up in the mask of Comedy
If laughter is a straw for a drowning man
If laughter is a straw for a drowning man


April Rose Schneider examines the unusual work of Rush's philosophical drummer and songwriter Neil Peart.

view /NeilPeart
Tuesday, February 22, 2011 08:37 pm
Neil Peart, drummer and songwriter for Rush
April Rose Schneider

(Guest blogger Dedi Felman's analysis of screenwriting techniques for this year's popular Oscar-worthy films continues. Previous entries discuss The King's Speech and The Social Network. -- Levi)

Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?

In order to break things down a bit, I decided to follow Nolan as he traveled down the screenwriter’s oft-cited two tracks of want and need. What does our hero want? What does he need? The first is a question of plot. The second refers to the character’s internal journey over the course of a script. Dom Cobb, Inception’s hero, wants to complete one last job so that he can get home to America and his children. Cobb needs to come to terms with the wife who, though dead, still haunts him.

The link between want and need turns out to be inception, or the planting of ideas, resilient, highly contagious ideas, in another’s mind. Much hay has already been made of the fact that, stripped down to its basics, Inception is a reversal of standard heist films. Our story begins with Cobb and his team performing extractions, or stealing secrets from a safe. So far, it’s a typical heist plot, albeit with the funky twist of taking place in someone’s mind.

The technique of extraction is then flipped on its head. After testing Cobb’s powers, a Japanese businessman, Saito, asks Cobb to plant an idea in a rival’s son’s mind instead. The idea, which the son, Robert Fischer, must come to himself, is to break up his father’s empire. The remainder of the movie’s plot is then governed by this reverse heist. We watch as Cobb and team push deeper and deeper into Fischer’s unconscious, trying to plant Saito’s idea and ensure it will take hold. If Cobb succeeds, Saito will ensure Cobb’s safe passage back to America. Along the way, the team must battle Fischer’s defenses, literalized as security forces (or projections) that try to shoot them down.

These battles play out over three levels of Fischer’s subconscious, as planned by the team: the first level where Fischer accepts that he will not follow in his father’s footsteps; a second where Fischer decides he will create something himself; and a third where he discovers that his father wants him to be his own man. Each level is “guarded” by a member of the team. So there is reality, where Cobb’s team (Eames, Arthur, Ariadne, and Yusuf) are, along with Cobb, Fischer and Saito, asleep on a plane. There is the first level, where Yusuf, the chemist drives a van and tries to keep everyone inside alive as hostile forces follow. There is the second level where Arthur safekeeps the sleeping team in a hotel as the remaining crew continues to dig deep into Fischer’s subconscious. And there is the third level, the hospital complex where Eames, Saito and Cobb (accompanied by Cobb’s personal safekeeper, Ariadne) must fight off the militarized forces of Fischer’s unconscious and ensure that Fischer gains access to his father’s second will, the legacy that will give Fischer the final push to follow his own path and break up the company.

Nolan guides us from level to level with ease, devising obstacles that keep each guardian (Yusuf then Arthur then Eames) busy and that block the team as they try to complete the inception. Nolan’s technique of using continuous crosscuts between the dangers of each level, much of it typical action fare involving gunplay and explosions, keeps the tension high. The crosscuts also ensure that our attention never flags as we try to unravel the puzzle of what exactly is happening at any one time.

But one level of plot, even a plot that entails three levels, is for ordinary action screenwriters. Nolan’s determined to do more than that. As the film proceeds, we realize that complicating the Fischer plotline, there’s actually a second inception that must take place before Cobb and his team can get back to safety. [Spoiler alerts follow.] Saito, the team’s employer, must be convinced that the team has successfully planted the idea in Fischer’s head for the team to achieve its goal. But at the midpoint t wist Saito is shot. Shooting someone in an extraction wakes them up, but shooting someone in an inception means they’ll be lost down below. So now on top of convincing Fischer to dismantle his father’s empire, Cobb must convince the older Saito who is trapped in the netherworld that he lives in a half-remembered dream. Saito must be convinced to come back to reality so that Cobb can get home.

And because screenwriter’s rules require threes, there’s a third inception: one that Cobb must perform on himself. Cobb’s wife is dead. And Cobb feels tremendous guilt. Cobb needs to forgive himself—and to let go. Can Cobb, with his new dream architect, the ever trusty Ariadne, succeed in planting all three ideas: for Fischer that he must become his own man, for Saito that he must take a leap of faith and come back home, and for Cobb himself that letting go of the person he promised to be with forever is okay?

But there’s another kicker to come.

If this were just an action movie, perhaps the gunplay in the three levels could resolve all. But this is a movie of psychology and ideas as much as action. And so, when it turns out, there aren’t just three levels, there are four, we understand we’re in for a whole new twist. Underneath all three dream states lies limbo, where Saito, Fischer and Cobb become trapped. What’s the key to getting out of limbo? As with the triple level plotline, it relies on the uncovering of a fourth aspect of a sequence we had been led to believe was a triple—in this case uncovering a fourth inception.

What’s this fourth idea that was planted? To find out, we go beyond the reverse heist to unravel a mystery. Early on, we understand that we are going deeper and deeper into not just Fischer’s unconscious but, as Ariadne points out, into Cobb’s. What we don’t understand is exactly why Cobb is so wracked with guilt. And it’s in the solution to this mystery that the movie works—or doesn’t--for many of its viewers.

Cobb wants to get back home. This drives him to actions that are the stuff of a standard action movie plot, albeit one complicated by three levels and three inceptions, or dives into the recesses of mind that make the movie fun for the intellectually oriented, Kaufman-freaks like myself. But Nolan, like all good screenwriters, realizes that a movie’s experience ultimately succeeds or fails based on the hero’s need. It’s Cobb’s need, not his wants, that raises the emotional stakes. And rereading this script and rewatching the movie I was surprised by how deeply involved I felt in Cobb’s quest to get home to his children, his quest to acknowledge his guilt and responsibility for his wife’s death, his quest to achieve catharsis.

When we’re clued in early that the key to Cobb’s freedom lies not in Fischer’s reconciliation with father or even Saito’s reconciliation with reality, but in Cobb’s reconciliation with his wife, Mal, excitement builds. The standard heist movie’s been wrapped in an enigma. We’re asked to unravel maze upon maze. For some it’s too much. Yet, by the time we get to Cobb’s catharsis of telling his wife, Mal that he feels at fault for her suicide, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one moved.

As others have suggested (See Scott Meyers’ wonderful blog Go Into the Story for a complete analysis) there a strongly Jungian strain to Cobb’s journey to rid himself of his “shade”—or that which blocks him. Cobb's psychological trajectory has many parallels to Fischer's. Unlike Fischer, however, Cobb isn’t an innocent. Rather he’s responsible for Mal’s death. Mal’s suicide is based on a false idea that her reality was no longer real, an idea that Cobb implanted. Here is the elusive fourth inception. And it’s to this point of the fourth inception, the one that Cobb can barely admit to himself, the one that killed his wife that the whole movie has been building. As the pieces click into place, we, like Cobb, feel a powerful relief. We understand the mystery. We too can let go. We forgive Cobb as he forgives himself.

Like The Matrix, the movie asks the question: what’s real? What’s not? What do we the audience want? To be stimulated by great action sequences and provoked by interesting ideas. What do we need? To achieve emotional catharsis. And though Nolan’s construction of Cobb’s “want” through line is multiply-layered, Nolan never for a moment ignores Cobb’s “need” through line. And that’s what makes the film so emotionally powerful.

Finally, a word on the ending. In my view, Cobb's reconciliation with his children is real as is his return to the present day. Others have suggested, however, that Cobb may still be lost. There is support for this take in the opium den scene. Perhaps Cobb never wakes after he's given the sedative and the entire job is another dream. But to believe that Nolan wanted us to walk away with this ending requires a fundamentally cynical loss of faith.My suspicion is that, to the contrary, Nolan wishes us to depart believing in Cobb's rebirth. Nolan understands that the audience’s need is strangely akin to Fischer’s—and Cobb’s. We need to feel the redemptive power of movies. And we need not to lose our faith in the intellectually and emotionally provocative even as we enjoy our action fun.

I delighted in the screenplay’s complexity even as others found the movie overly dense. Breaking the script down by lines of want and need, the symmetries of plot and throughlines are clear and intricately woven. And I remain spellbound by just how much Nolan sticks to screenwriting’s rules, even as he breaks practically all the molds in the book.


Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script?

view /Inception
Thursday, February 17, 2011 07:29 pm
Dream sequence from the film "Inception"
Dedi Felman